Blessed are Those who have Seen

A little essay that is now appearing in the Anglican Planet. Here’s the link to the site. The essay is below.

Blessed are Those Who Have Seen:

Imagination, Christian Formation and Icons

By Tim Perry


ONLY THE HARDIEST evolutionary biologists (known as “eliminativists”) would dispute the claim that the mind is designed not merely to survive, but also to know the world–all the way from galaxies to atoms. Although we often take this capacity for granted, just a moment’s pause will invite wonder that it should be the case. Why is the world capable of being known? Why are our minds fitted to know creation, and not merely function in it? There is no reason that either our world or our minds should be constructed in the way that they are. And so, when we see this “fittedness,” we are compelled to make the bold and daring claim that we are designed to know our world.

This claim derives from the Christian doctrine of Creation. We cannot read it off the biblical page, but it follows hand-in-glove that if the world is the product of a Mind, then that world would be rationally structured. And further, that if our minds are products of the same Mind, then there should be a symmetrical relationship among all three. Ironically, those evolutionary biologists who insist there is no mind, but only complex survival skills, must presume something like what I have just written before they can begin their work denying it.

Of course, there is much more to our human mind than its rationality, its capacity to know the truth about things (let us call this faculty ‘reason’). The Christian doctrine of Creation makes two further similar claims: our minds are also ordered to know the good—how to conduct ourselves in our world (we might call this faculty ‘conscience’). They are even ordered to know the beautiful—they give us a sense of the whole, of why we are in our world (we might call this faculty ‘imagination’).

Human beings are designed to desire and to know the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We are designed to reason, to morally weigh and to imagine–and through the right use of all three faculties, to come to know God.

I’ve spent some time spelling this out because of our modern tendency to reduce minds to reason or, on a good day, reason and conscience. For now, let’s set conscience aside. Even in Christian discourse, discussion of beauty is shrunk to matters of mere preference. Imagination has fallen on hard times. It is far too often equated with make-believe or sheer invention; at its best it takes us to unreal places, which we must leave to return to the real world.

I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, I’m coming to believe just the opposite: that this neglected faculty is necessarily part of an engagement with the real world. The apologist Holly Ordway puts it this way: “Imagination is the cognitive function that assimilates sensory data into images.” In other words, imagination is that cognitive faculty that assembles the pieces into a whole that shows us how, where, and why those pieces fit the way they do. And in this capacity imagination is, C. S. Lewis argued, the organ of meaning and the condition of truth.

Ordway herself is an example of what I’ve been talking about. An English professor and ardent atheist, Ordway found that she couldn’t make sense of John Donne’s poetry. It was obviously beautiful literature. So beautiful, she was drawn to it. But the world from which it sprang—a very Christian one—was closed to her. As she continued to interact with Donne and later, with other Christian writers like G.K. Chesteron and C.S. Lewis, she came to “see” the world from which they wrote. Certainly Christian, but not irrational, this world was philosophically astute and aesthetically persuasive. Her imagination enabled her to enter this world, even if as a visitor at first. Finally she discovered—to her initial shock—that this world was in fact the real world. In her memoir, Not God’s Type (Ignatius Press), she tells the story of how God converted her imagination first. Her reason and conscience then followed.

What does this have to do with Christian formation?

Just this: in a world dominated by images which, whether we are aware of it or not, combine to tell a very different story than the Christian one, serious Christian formation will have to take the role of the imagination seriously or it will fail. Indeed, it is failing.

Much ink has been spilled over churched youths who lapse when they come of age or have no appreciable Christian background at all (the “nones”), and over adults who, after a lifetime in church suddenly find the faith irredeemably foreign and leave (the “dones”). One theme common in many of their stories is not so much that apologetic arguments stopped being good arguments, or that the Christian moral vision ceased to be clearly grounded or even practicable. Rather it was that the culture stopped providing a “social imaginary” in which those arguments and that vision made sense. One could believe in Jesus, but why bother? One could adopt the Christian moral vision, but . . . really, who’d want to? Questions like these arise from people who’ve lost a sense of the whole, a sense of how the apologetics and morality cohere in a larger beautiful picture of God and God’s world. They are voiced by people whose Christian imaginations have atrophied.

If this description rings true at all, then pastors and priests, youth and children’s ministers, all involved in discipleship training or Christian formation should be reflecting on the arts as much as they do on apologetic and moral arguments. In what ways does the entertainment we consume, in whatever format, shape our imaginations? How does it “form” the social world in which we live, move and have our being? How can we cooperate with God’s Spirit in the conversion of the imagination–in our lives and in the lives of those for whom we care?

Space prohibits a full treatment of these questions. Instead, I want to suggest one way of addressing them involves the incorporation of a more imaginative method of Christian formation than is typical in evangelical Protestant, and evangelical Anglican congregations: praying with icons.

The practice is almost as ancient as the faith, and was made a matter of dogma (!) in 787 at the Second Council of Nicea, the last of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Against those who, under the threat of an expansionist Islamic empire, hoped to lessen tension by removing visual imagery from Christian worship, the assembled bishops insisted that icons of the Lord, biblical characters and events and the saints should be found not only in churches, but also in homes and along the roadside. They did so in the hope that those who paused to ponder them would be led to contemplate not the physical icons themselves, but the divine realities and truths to which they pointed. The icons were, in other words, signs, pointers, or even windows to the divine. They are aids intended to revitalize our imaginations, and in so doing, help us listen and speak to God.

My own favourite icon, to which I regularly return, and about which I have written previously, is the Virgin of the Sign. Contemplation of this icon reminds me that the Church is prefigured in Mary, the first to welcome the Word of God incarnate. It reminds me that if I would commune with the One she bears, I must be a part of the Bride whom she prefigures, the Church. It reminds me that I must be more like Mary in her obedience, her perseverance and her active holiness, as these are described by Luke. It reminds me that the One who himself brings blessing (note his right hand) and teaching (note the scroll in his left) is no mere human baby, but Christ the Lord, who blesses in his own Name and, indeed, is the Truth he teaches. It reminds me, finally, that this contemplation has a missional purpose. Both Mary and Jesus, in their respective gazes, do not seek to draw me in, but to turn me around and send me back out into the world that they love and would see reconciled to God. Thus I am incorporated into the very mission of God.

This is only one example, and a bare sketch at that. I could add more. I keep an icon of Peter in my office, whose downcast gaze never fails to strengthen me when the challenges of pastoral ministry are greater than I can handle. (This is about seven days a week.) I am also deeply moved by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Three Visitors (Genesis 18), understood as a prefigurement of the Holy Trinity.

An icon communicates knowledge, surely. But it does so in a way that is not merely rational. It is also imaginative. It gives a sense of the whole, a greater picture of God, and God’s world, and our place therein such that we have an imaginative space within which the apologetic arguments and moral vision can be set forth in a persuasive way.

Of course, training our imaginations need not be only through such obviously spiritual exercises. Holly Ordway was engaged and converted by poetry. And notably, she was not reading to be evangelized. Donne’s poetry did not function like some sort of pre-modern Four Spiritual Laws. The Holy Spirit, through Donne’s poetry, awakened her imagination. Explicit evangelization only came later.  Just so, we contemplate icons not “to engage in Christian formation,” but to pray. We submit ourselves to the Spirit of God as an echo of the Blessed Virgin’s submission: “Let it be to me as you have spoken.”

The cultural ground beneath our feet has shifted radically. If we would engage with people, whether inside or outside explicit faith, whether in terms of formation and discipleship, or indeed evangelization, we are wise if we lead with beauty, with imagination.

Amends by Eve Tushnet (Review)

Amends is the new novel by Eve Tushnet. Tushnet is probably best known as a blogger for‘s catholic channel and the author of the non-fiction, really really good book Gay and Catholic.  And that’s perhaps a good place to begin for people unfamiliar with this wonderful young writer.

As the title of her first book suggests, Eve Tushnet doesn’t fit easily in at least three camps. She is the child of ardent atheists, but is a convert to Catholicism. She identifies as a lesbian, but affirms and lives according to her Church’s teaching on human sexuality. The original subtitle for her blog was “Conservativism reborn in twisted sisterhood.” And that suits pretty well everything she writes.

A self-conscious outsider, Tushnet’s writing manages to unsettle the “just the way things are” of just about everyone–myself included–no matter what tribe they claim as theirs. And I think she’s great.

So, here’s the question I think Tushnet is engaging in this novel: how does one talk about sin and grace, about redemption and God, even Jesus and the sacraments to an audience for whom such language is, if it is known at all, saccharine or cliche?

By setting the story on a reality tv show, of course.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story: Amends is an MTV reality tv show in which six characters–a woman who identifies as a wolf, an Ethiopian Christian mystic, a conservative writer, a teen hockey star, a brash lesbian playwright, and a gay man who’s last job was in collections–learn about themselves, their addictions, and the harm they’ve inflicted. And they begin to make amends–hence the name of both the show and the novel. They are overseen by two tv executives hoping, in their own way, to make sense of themselves and, of course, to get the show renewed for another season.

This is a brilliant move. We might not be able to talk about sin and grace any more, but even the most secular among us knows all too well the inbuilt human capacity to make our lives difficult, or worse. We can easily find elements in one or more of the characters that echo in our own lives, that attract us. We can find similarly cringe-worthy elements that make us want to keep reading, too. And if the characters veer sometimes a little too close to caricature, it is always with Tushnet’s satirical wink and the reminder that this is, after all, reality tv.

Setting things on a reality tv show allows Tushnet the freedom to paint in even bolder colours than might be possible in a more “realistic” setting. The extreme behaviours make sense on reality tv, and therefore allow Tushnet to shout at her readers without actually raising her voice. This is a Flannery O’Connor move, allowing Tushnet to say, “Yes, this really messed up world full of really messed up people is the world that God loves!” to all who have ears to hear.

The banter is earthy, hilarious, and engaging. It can move from the ridiculous to the very thoughtful in a nanosecond. It skewers pop-culture’s sacred cows and invited us to reconsider ideas many of us think we’ve outgrown. It is a twisted, but very real and inviting, conservativism.

In short, Amends is Augustine’s Confessions cast as a novel for the age of Orange is the New Black.

Read it.

This Column is Not About Marriage

Evangelicals have been writing about marriage for many years. We still are, 10 years after same sex marriages became a legal reality in Canada. Still, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ogberfell decision has once again put marriage on the front burner for evangelicals and other Christians across North America. And we are writing, writing, writing at least with greater ferocity than before.

Having been asked what I think, I submit that this is a great time NOT to write about marriage.

I think the controversy has provided us evangelicals with an opportunity to write about Christendom’s higher calling: celibacy. Sadly, however, it has also demonstrated to some of us that we can’t talk with people about celibacy because the popular evangelical understanding of marriage is so feeble.

First the opportunity. How might our singles react were they to hear that the celibate life was a vocation, a calling (Matthew 19:11)? That this vocation was not so much a gift from God as the gift of one’s whole self to God? How might they react were they to hear that this gift was a sacrifice, and like any sacrifice, it involved pain? To give one’s self entirely to God means sacrificing the possible life of spouse and children. What if we were to teach them that the inevitable pain of singleness is not a sign that their lives are incomplete, but the sign of a gift offered to God?

How might some of our singles respond were they to hear that the calling of celibacy, while painful, also freed one for service entirely to God and his church by laying aside a family’s inevitable demands (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)? Goodness me, we’ve heard lots about people surrendering marriage and family for the sake of career goals and the acquisition of wealth. How about for the sake of God’s mission in the world? That would be radical!

Or, finally, how might some of our singles respond were they to hear that their life anticipates the kingdom in a way that marriage does not? Marriage, as the union of male and female, points to God’s union with creation, to YHWH’s union with Israel, and to Christ’s union with the Church. When the full divine-human union of the kingdom comes, the sign will pass away (Matt. 22:30). If marriage brings the future into the present as a sign, celibacy brings the present into the future through anticipation. As a chosen vocation, celibacy is the wager of one’s self that the blessedness of the future kingdom will exceed the blessedness of family life now, and so is embraced in the present. Celibacy is not some sort of “failure to launch” but uniquely points to the Kingdom in a way that marriage cannot.

Now the challenge. When I worked at a Christian bookstore in the early nineties, an entire shelf was devoted to “marriage and family life.” We even sold Christian sex manuals. I don’t know a couple my age who didn’t survive an excruciating exposition of The Act of Marriage or Intended for Pleasure. People like me, older and unintentionally unpartnered, tended to fall into one of two camps: super-apostles “gifted with celibacy” or failing in our Christian vocation to marry. Holy freaks, or just freaks. Either way, we weren’t popular. Church was for the married or the on-the-way-to-be-married. Far too often in my experience, marriage was caricatured as the license to have sex. In hindsight, pretty thin gruel.

If the evangelical view of marriage really is that which surrounded me twenty-five years ago, we don’t have the resources we need to preach those sermons I mentioned above. We need a robust theology of marriage to help us flesh out an equally strong theology of the celibate life.

With the conflation of sexuality and identity thrust upon us in our culture’s marriage-and-sex-obsession, we have a chance to recover the deeply Christian language of celibacy. Are our pastors and leaders, men and women, married and celibate, up to the challenge?

The Gifts of Reformational Catholicism

I ran across this essay, about a year old now. Thought it might be of interest to some of you. Let me know if my suspicion is correct (or not)!



On November 8 of last year, the gadfly Presbyterian pastor, theologian and author, Peter J. Leithart created a significant amount of internet controversy, especially in Reformed and Evangelical circles, by publishing the essay, “The End of Protestantism,” on the First Things website, where he blogs regularly.[1] In that piece, he argued that Protestantism—defined as a perpetual negative reaction to all things Roman Catholic—needs to, and indeed is coming to, an end. In its place, he proposed Reformational Catholicism; a position which, without negating the classical emphases of the Reformation, no longer needed to define itself over against Roman Catholicism, but sought more to accentuate what the traditions held in common: the Scriptures, the Creeds, the first 1500 years of Christian faith, and so on.

The ensuing controversy was helpfully articulated as a public conversation at an evening entitled “The Future of Protestantism,” held at Biola University in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by the Davenant Trust and First Things, and featuring Leithart as well as responses by Carl Trueman and Fred Sanders. [2] While the content offered by all three speakers was helpful, I couldn’t help but feel that that Leithart on one side and Trueman and Sanders on the other talked past each other because of different working definitions of Protestantism. Leithart assumed a sociological definition. He was talking about a movement within history; one that is now entering its denouement. Here, as in his original essay, he hoped—as some have noted in Hegelian fashion—to try to sketch the contours of what would replace it. It was a great act of Aufhebung, that is, a simultaneous discarding and taking up, going forward into the future. Trueman and Sanders, on the other hand, defined Protestantism doctrinally. It was a system or collection of fairly fixed doctrines that, because they were true, needed to abide and to be defended by any and all perceived attempts to weaken those doctrines. And any attempt at downplaying the differences with Roman Catholicism—and this is clearly what Leithart was up to—needed to be protested.[3]

Leithart has to my mind drawn a line under the conversation, or at least his own contribution to it, in the recent essay, “Staying Put,” in which he insists he is not about to become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, or, me genoita!, Anglican. He will stay in his Presbyterian denomination, and continue to advance Reformational Catholicism within it.[4] While several reasons were offered, the most important was theological. In Leithart’s own words:

My main reason for staying put is theological. God is alive, and that means he surprises, and that means he frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon. Jesus will unite his church. He asked his Father to make his disciples one, and the Father won’t give his Son a stone when he asks for one loaf. But the united church won’t look like any of the products presently on the market. God is an entrepreneur who is in the business of creating new markets.[5]

I begin this paper with a nod to Rev. Leithart because I am in fundamental sympathy with his project. I think the sociological evidence is incontrovertible: Protestantism—in all its varieties and iterations—is dying in the West. What, 25 years ago, was seen as a liberal Protestant disease that led to some conservative sneers is, today, an epidemic across the spectrum. The United States, like Canada and Europe before it, is losing its faith. This is hardly news. The question that Leithart has asked, and his critics have often missed, is what is going to replace it.

I confess, I do not know. From within my own denomination and diocese, that lack of knowledge coupled with the increasing closing of parishes and “streamlining” of budgets keeps me perpetually unsettled. And when that discomfort approaches anxiety, as it does more often these days, it is hard not to look longingly at Rome for the rest it might offer. With Leithart, however, I do feel the call of God to stay where I am, a priest in a church founded by a King who wanted a divorce, a priest in a church now tearing itself apart over marriage, but still a church where at least sometimes, the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments faithfully administered.

So, if Leithart is right that, going forward, is not going to be a matter of individual conversions, but some sort of growing together toward something new that preserves the gifts God gave to his church uniquely through the Reformation, what are those things? In the remainder of this paper, I want to advance three. One doctrinal, one liturgical, and one, political.

  1. The Centrality of the Word

Doctrinally, Reformational Catholicism would, I hope, continue to insist on the centrality of Holy Scripture as a guide for both personal and corporate piety. The writings of the Fathers, the Saints, and so on, as helpful as they might be, must themselves be submitted to the scrutiny of the Word of God. Of course, this touches on one of the neuralgic questions of the Reformation—do we begin with Scripture or Church?—so I need to start with a couple of qualifications.

First, I am not talking about a particular theory of inspiration or infallibility or inerrancy. These issues have their place in Christian theological reflection. But they are simply not what I am talking about here. I am talking rather about how Scripture is deployed in communities of faith. Is its reading and careful application central to decision-making from the highest level down? Second, I am not challenging the place and importance of some sort magisterial organ of interpretation of Holy Scripture. Here, in my view, the classical Reformation does not depart from Rome on whether there should be such a thing, but rather, on the matter of what such a thing should look like. The classical Protestant tradition heartily agrees that sola Scriptura does NOT mean that each unaided can interpret the Bible correctly, but would nevertheless affirm that the Scriptures are themselves the organ used by the Spirit of God to judge, purify, and heal his church when it seems to stray.

In short, beginning with the question, “What do the Scriptures say?” is, I think, a gift Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole Church, and one that will continue.

To unpack just what this looks like, I direct us to the French-Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and his understanding of ordination under the Word.

John Calvin broke with the threefold understanding of ordination of deacon, priest and bishop, to affirm instead only two ordained offices: that of doctor (or teacher) and that of pastor. Both offices were further redefined away from sacerdotalism, which by the late medieval era had come to look to many Reformers, both those who remained within and those who either left or were pushed, as a species of magical superstition, and toward a Word centred understanding.

For Calvin, those called to the office of Doctor were called to the task of training of pastors in the reading and preaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. They were to do so in two ways. First of all, doctors were to write Institutes, which Calvin himself famously did. His Institutes of the Christian Religion first appeared in 1536, and was constantly revised, being republished in 1539, 1543, 1550, and finally in 1559. There is no reason to suppose that the Institutes had achieved some sort of perfection in their author’s mind by their final published edition. Rather, the task of continual revision was interrupted by Calvin’s death.

Institutes were to function on two levels. They were first of all, intended to read for moral formation. Calvin himself makes this plain in his prefatory letter to King Francis of France, a letter which appeared in the 1536 edition, and in every edition thereafter: “My purpose was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[6]

And how did they intend morally to form their readers? By functioning as a hermeneutical guide. The Institutes are not a systematic theology, per se. Indeed, systematic theology as we know it—a semi-scientific enunciation of Christian doctrine in an ordered way—is a unique creation of the second generation of the Reformation as Catholic and Protestant thinkers both sought to vindicate their own theological conclusions over against those of their opponents. And while the Reformed tradition, of which Calvin (with Zwingli and Bullinger) is the source, has produced its share of systematic theologians (for good and ill), Calvin is not a systematic theologian nor do the Institutes constitute a systematic theology. They are, rather, a hermeneutical guideline. They are to make clear the principles by which the contents of Holy Scripture are rightly interpreted, in order that the Scriptures may themselves by properly understood and that, through that understanding, readers might by morally formed.

Of course, Institutes on their own, while helpful, are incomplete. Doctors must train pastors in the application of the hermeneutical principles laid out to the text of Holy Scripture. They do so through the writing of commentaries. And again, Calvin is himself a guide here. Having written commentaries on every book of the bible, except the book of Revelation. The purpose of the commentaries was to bring the hermeneutical principles to bear upon the sacred page in order that their contents’ meaning might be made clear. And this might be seen to function both backward and forward—forward into the pastoral tasks of preaching and visitation, which I’ll get to in a moment, and backward into the task of revising the hermeneutical principles in the first place. Which is why Calvin’s own Institutes were always under revision. They were always themselves being submitted to the Scriptures in order to make certain that people really were being formed in godliness, and that thy were being trained to read Scripture rightly.

This brings me to the second ordained office—that of pastor. Like the doctor, the pastor’s task was primarily directed toward moral formation through the teaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. Like that of the doctor, Calvin conceived that task as functioning in two ways. The difference between the offices had to do with audience and tasks. Where the doctor was charged with the training of pastors, however, the pastor was charged with the training of lay people. Where the doctor wrote institutes and commentaries, the pastor preached sermons and visited his people. Where the doctor was concerned to elucidate the contents of Holy Scripture, the pastor focused on the application of these contents to the everyday lives of their parishioners

Here I think we can move more quickly because the structural similarities of the offices are both deliberate and obvious and also because I intend to reflect on the importance of preaching further on. The sermon is to the pastor as the institutes are to the doctor. The sermon is the general application of the Bible’s contents to the lives of parishioners. The visit is then the space for the specific application in specific situations.

What to take away from this? Not, first, Calvin’s understanding of ordination. As an Anglican, I do think it misconceived. But Calvin does offer the whole church a gift in his insistence that part of the ordained office is teaching, the content of that teaching is Holy Scripture, and the goal of that teaching is a biblically literate and shaped laity. The writings of the fathers and the saints, as indeed the writing of the medieval theologians—and Calvin is quite capable of deploying them and not merely as foils—are themselves guides into, and open to the corrections of Holy Scripture. They are not alternatives, or short cuts, to detailed and persistent biblical study. But as Calvin’s own work makes clear, such a study does take place within a community of faith, well-versed the great tradition, and always on-going. This is the first gift that Reformational Catholicism can offer to the entire church.

  1. The Importance of Preaching

A second is an insistence upon the importance of preaching as the activity of the pastor. Again, this can be cast negatively—as a reaction against biblically and theologically illiterate priests and against a sacramentology divorced from the Word from which they received their sense. I would prefer, however, to cast it positively, and say that this should be seen not so much as an attack on sacramental ministry as the attempt to recover preaching and preaching’s place in the saving economy of God. And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Fr. Robert Barron, President of Mundelein Seminary, give the keynote address at the Catholic Media Convention in Denver.[7] When calling his audience to the New Evangelization, he offered six points, all of which are good. But he caught my attention with point #3. “Preach with ardour!” he said to his audience. And I said, “Amen!” to my computer.

We see this throughout the documents of the Reformation era, whether it is transcripts of Luther’s or Calvin’s sermons, or even some church architecture, with the pulpit replacing the altar as the focal point of the gathered community. I want to highlight just one example from my own tradition—the Canterbury Six Preachers.

In 1540, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer responded to Henry’s dissolution of the Christ Church Priory by creating in its place the Six Preachers. Enacted by Parliament in 1541, the six preachers had the right to eat with the dean and canons, to sit in the quire in Canterbury Cathedral, and they were required to preach 20 sermons / year, whether in their own parishes or in a parish dependent upon the Cathedral. And they were to preach in the Cathedral, too. Cranmer’s vision in establishing the Six Preachers, was to stress that the Church of England would be a preaching church. And from 1544 to today, there has been an unbroken succession of Six Preachers. (For those of you interested in Anglican church politics, Archbishop Justin raised eyebrows and some hackles by appointing Rev. Dr. Tory Baucum, of the Anglican Church in North America, as one of the Six Preachers last year).

While for some Protestants, preaching is accentuated at the expense of the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, for Reformational Catholics, preaching is accentuated as the place where the Christ who claims us as his own in baptism and feeds us with his very life in bread and wine, speaks to us in with and under the words of the preacher. Preaching is not some kind of dry exposition of an academic text book. But rather, it is the announcement of the promise of God to save all who believe, and it accomplishes that which it announces when it is received in faith. While it is not a sacrament, it is a sacramental act. And when it is diminished, the mission of the church suffers. For when it is diminished, the laity are left unformed, and the sacraments become mute signs, divorced from the promises they express and contain.

  1. The Authority of the Church

Finally, Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church a reconception of the Church’s authority. I recognize the potential for misunderstanding here, so I am going to proceed slowly and with an extended appeal to example so that we can avoid many potential pitfalls. Let’s have a look at Article 20 of the Anglican 39 articles:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies and Authority in Controversies of Faith: yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing contrary to Gods word written, neither to may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to Decree any thing against the same; so besides the same it ought not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.[8]


The article opens with a strong declaration of the Church’s teaching authority.  But notice how it goes from there to delimit it significantly. The Church’s authority is bounded by Holy Scripture—it cannot ordain that which is contrary; nor can it set Scripture against itself; nor can it teach as necessary that which is not found therein. Moreover, the Church’s authority not self-generated, but is founded upon the prior authority of Scripture. The Church’s authority rests in the fact that the Church is witness to and guardian of these documents.


There are a number of points that might be worthy of comment here, some of which would take us back into the nettle bush of Reformation debate and disagreement. Without denying the importance of such, I want to focus on the positive. At a time when the Pope could command his own armed forces, this article strictly prohibits conformity to the Church’s teaching under compulsion. Also, the Church’s authority to teach or to convince lies outside the magistrate’s authority to command. While the magistrate may be called upon to use the sword to prevent false teaching, or perhaps less dramatically, help the church organize itself in ways and matters that are indifferent to Holy Scripture (See Article 34), the magistrate may not compel the Church to teach what it believes to be false.


The Church’s authority lies, simply, in its calling by God to tell the truth. It does not have the authority to command, but instead, the authority to convince. As Pope Benedict himself put it in 2008, the church does not impose, but freely proposes the Catholic faith.


It seems to me this vision of authority is especially needed in our own day, when those charged with the exercise of coercive power, far more than simply policing the public square so that people of deep conviction and good will can civilly conduct themselves therein, want to use that coercive authority to make sure only like-minded people can participate in public debate. This, it seems to me, is the bedrock of the co-belligerence spoken of my Fr R J Neuhaus and Chuck Colson even as they founded Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The Catholic Church—which I pray encompasses both Roman and Reformational Catholics—stands today as a sign of contradiction to such political visions. And it does so not with opposing armies, but with the insistence that the authority to tell the truth is itself a legitimate expression of authority, that as such serves both to ground and to delimit the authority to command, that indeed without it, the authority to command soon devolves into tyranny.




I hope it is clear that my argument that Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church gifts of word-centred piety, preaching-centred worship, and truth-centred authority, does not imply that Roman Catholicism lacks these things. I do think that historically, each of these elements were in severe decline in late medieval Roman Catholicism, and that the Reformation reaction against this decline was an expression of legitimate concern for the whole church. Insofar as I see these gifts taken up and received in Roman Catholicism—and I hope it’s clear that I do—I rejoice. Insofar as I see these gifts rejected by those who claim to be the Reformers’ heirs, I weep. In the West, I do believe that the Lord is calling Reformational and Roman Catholics into deeper unity, a unity that will not be the capitulation of one to the other, nor the creation of a new third thing. I believe further that, as has so often happened in the past, the external push toward such unity will be persecution. But that is a subject for another paper.

[1] Peter J. Leithart, “The End of Protestantism,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[2] See for a recording of the event. Accessed May 27, 2014.

[3] One is tempted to ask how these authors feel about J. Gresham Machen’s similar attempt at rapprochement in the introduction to his classic fundamentalist work, Christianity and Liberalism

[4] Peter J. Leithart, “Staying Put,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. LCC XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 9.

[7] The entire address can be found here:–Barron-s-7-Keys-to-the-New-Evangelization.aspx. Accessed, May 29, 2014.

[8] Book of Common Prayer, ed. Cummings, 679

Messy Church

The persecution that took place under Diocletian (303-313) was especially severe in North Africa. As a result, the question of how or whether to re-admit Christians to worship who had recanted their faith, was a very difficult pastoral question, especially when they were priests or even bishops.

Some insisted that lapsed believers could not return, or if they could, only after a protracted and public period of repentance. Priests and Bishops, if readmitted to the community, could never return to their former roles. Others were more lenient. After a period of repentance, mercy and forgiveness should determine the course. Priests and Bishops could also return to their ministries.

By the time of the fifth century, the positions had become so polarized that the North African Church split into two competing churches. On the one side, the Donatists insisted that the Church, and especially its leaders, must be pure. On the other, the Catholics held that before the kingdom of God came in its fullness, a certain amount of messiness was unavoidable.

St. Augustine was convinced by his reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), that the Church would never be pure until the Final Judgment. Until then she would be a mixture of sinners and saints, people resisting grace and resting in it. Communities should not be too quick to judge who’s in or not, even among the leadership.

I wonder whether some of my friends on the religious right and the red-letter left could learn from Augustine’s reluctance to rush to judgment. On just about every hot-button issue today, we find Christians divided amongst ourselves. To our collective shame, we far too easily call down the judgment of God on those who disagree with us. We do so with particular verve in social media, where one’s enemies are anonymous and therefore demonized—that word is used deliberately–much more easily.

We act in this way because we want a pure church. We want to presume upon the judgment of God; we want to short-circuit the path to the Day of Judgment. We want, if I may put it more provocatively, to present God with a holy Church of our own making all the while refusing to receive the holiness that is God’s gift in Christ to his Church. We act this way because we are sinners as much as our opponents are.

Already I can hear my neo-Donatist critics sharpening their rhetorical swords. “Christians should not tolerate [insert preferred ideological opponent here]! We need to exercise discipline! We need to call them to repentance!” I have no answer to that, because I largely agree. When the behaviour of believers become a scandal to their unbelieving neighbors, the Church needs to discern the source of the scandal. If the scandal is rooted in fidelity to the Gospel (as with Stephen in Acts), then the Church celebrates this believer as a prophet, or a saint, or possibly a martyr. If the scandal is rooted in persistent sinfulness (as with the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians), then the Church disciplines even to the point of exclusion from the community.

Here’s my point: what is lost in so much debate today is precisely the wisdom and time needed to discern. We want to identify who’s right, and who’s not and pass sentence right away. But that is not how the Church should work. Discipline working rightly recognizes that every situation is different, and even someone caught in serious sin (like those who lapse under persecution) may need restoration with a gentle hand rather than condemnation.

So before you share that next meme that so skewers Focus on the Family or Sojourners, ChristianWeek or Geez, for their latest failure, remember Augustine and the Donatists. Leave room for the Church to be messy. Leave room for the Church to discern. Leave room for the judgment of God.

Then What?

My last column argued that evangelical communities in Canada are not persecuted. To say so not only mocks the actual persecution of many Christians around the world, but also pushes otherwise sympathetic people away from our concerns, and, frankly, makes us look ridiculous. The Gospel is offensive enough on its own; we don’t need to help it along by behaving foolishly ourselves!

Does that mean that the discomfort many of us now experience is based on imaginary events? Certainly not.

In his book An Anxious Age, the American public intellectual Joseph Bottum, accounts for the current cultural climate in the United States, though with obvious parallels to Canada for readers north of the border. Bottum argues that those who set the cultural agenda are re-shaping institutions according to their moral convictions—as, in fact, they have always done. What marks them out from previous generations is not their “post-Christian” cultural vision—that has been true for nearly 50 years. Rather, it is the evangelical zeal with which the vision is pursued that is different. The once muted rhetoric of the “city on a hill” is now back, but the civil Christianity from which it was originally derived is gone. Provocatively, Bottum names this group the “elect,” highlighting that in demeanour, if not in religious content, the new culture shapers are very much like their Puritan ancestors.

Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, has coined the term “Megalothymia,” (the compulsive need to feel morally superior to others) to label the mindset that underlies the activism. The “elect” must not only be right; they must be seen to be right. As a result, those groups or individuals perceived to be out of step are not merely mistaken, but morally suspect as well: objects first of pity, then scorn, and finally, sanction. What I called “soft discrimination” in my last column.

If Bottum and Fukuyama can help the Canadian evangelical community to get a sense of what is going on, how should we respond? I’d like to suggest a two-step approach.

First imagine the worst possible future and trust in God anyway.

Here’s how Francis Cardinal George of Chicago described such a future in 2010: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” The quote has been making the rounds following George’s death on April 17.

The Cardinal’s point was not that events will unfold this way, but that if they do, the Church will still be present, seasoning society with the Gospel, and even watering society’s soil with martyrs’ blood. Why? Because it’s Jesus’s Church. Cardinal George makes me wonder how much of our rhetoric reveals a fear for the future. How much of that fear reflects a lack of trust in God? Can we not trust, that even if the worst possible future comes to pass, God will care for his own? No matter the future, that future belongs to God.

Second, take note of the present and live faithfully and fully in it.

St. Gianna Molla put it best: “As to the past, let us entrust it to God’s mercy, the future to divine providence. Our task is to live holy in the present moment.” I understand her to say, there is no point pining for past privilege, even as there is no value in worrying for a future that belongs to God. To pine and to fret are distractions from the mission of holy living here and now. They are, in short, sins.

And if  in some dystopian future whether near or far, we are called to suffer (as so many of our brothers and sisters outside North America have been and are now) hopefully, we’ll rejoice that we will have been counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41). Until that day . . . .

Review: Traces of the Trinity (Peter J. Leithart, Brazos, 2015)

Readers of the blog will know that Peter J. Leithart appears regularly in some form or other here. I have referred to his little books, Against Christianity and Between Babel and Beast. I have reviewed Defending Constantine and Athanasius. I link to his essays on First Thingswebsite regularly. So, I want to start by thanking Baker/Brazos for sending me this book.

Like all of Leithart’s work, it is quirky and that’s where I want to begin. J. K. Rowling advises her young readers that to be equipped for life, they might sometimes have to go through it diagonally (Diagon Alley). They might, in other words, have to adopt a perspective that, if not counter to that of the majority, is at least slightly askew. Leithart does the same in his work: in Against Christianity and Defending Constantine he takes the decidedly minority side that “Post-Constantinian Christianity,” as exemplified in the works of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas is deeply mistaken. In Between Babel and Beast, he offers a theological justification for the fact of empire and a warning that the latest global empire, America, is on the verge of becoming beastly. Through it all, he consistently manages to mortify both the “Christian Right,” and the “Christian Left.” Which is why I like him.

So what makes Traces quirky? Well, for a start, it’s odd to find a Reformed theologian this side of Barth engaging in unapologetically natural theology. And that’s what this work is. In fact, if you listen for it, you can almost hear the Basel professor putting down his wheelbarrow of books, banging his shoe and shouting “Nein!” in heaven. Having said that though, it’s not what one typically expects from natural theology. That is, it is decidedly NOT an attempt to work up from foundational claims about the nature of the world to the being of God. Rather, it is natural theology that is decidedly Reformed, and one that has clearly drunk deeply from the wells of Radical Orthodoxy, and especially the work of John Milbank.

Thus, the books grounding assumption is straightforward: if God is Trinity, then we should find traces of the Trinity—trinitarian patterns, reflections, vestiges—in what God has made. Specifically, Leithart takes one of the most difficult theological concepts—perichoresis or mutual indwelling—and looks for glimpses of it in creation.

Now a tangent. Perichoresis was a theological term hammered into meaning on the anvil of the Christological debates that culminated in Chalcedon. It was an attempt to explain how the natures of Christ, human and divine, subsist in one person without mixture or division. Each indwells the other such that each remains itself while at the same fully attuned to, and acting in harmony with the other. As the identity of the person of Christ receded and the identity of God came to the fore, perichoresis was pressed into service again, this time in order to describe the relationships that mark the inner life of God. Each person of the Trinity so indwells the other two that he is fully attuned to and utterly in harmony with them. None can be divided from the others. And yet, each remains a person.

Where does Leithart see traces of this reality? In the human/world relationship (ch. 1), in intra-human relationships (ch. 2), in erotic relationships in particular (ch. 3), in time (ch. 4), in language (ch. 5), in music (ch. 6), and in ethics (ch. 7). If such traces are present, what does this mean for actual practice, both generally human and specifically Christian? This question is taken up in chapter 8. Finally, chapter 9 provides an appropriate concluding theological gloss to the preceding discussion.

One will invariably be reminded of the social trinitarianism that was “all the rage” about twenty years ago, especially as is found in the work of the late Stanley J. Grenz and Catharine LaCugna (among many others). But it is best not to press this similarity too deeply. This movement has been rightly criticized as implicitly Feuerbachian—projecting from “the society we need” to an understanding of God that will support it. It ends up saying a lot about us, but nothing at all about God.

While Leithart does use some similar vocabulary (especially perichoresis), this is not the direction his work takes. Rather it is exactly the opposite. Moving from the identity of God as disclosed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Leithart seeks to discern traces of that identity in what this God has made, and only then ask what lived difference this should make.

I found this book hard to start—like I said, its quirky—but once the lightbulbs started going on, I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended for theological students and seminarians.

Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother . . . .

One of my tasks in the parish is to be a catechist: to prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation by teaching them the basics of the faith. It is my practice to do so through Lent, and to use the Apostles’ Creed (what Christians believe), The Ten Commandments (how Christians act), and the Lord’s Prayer (how Christians live and worship) as guides. This past year, it was my especial privilege to prepare my daughter to affirm for herself the promises Rachel and I, and Jason and Kara made on her behalf at the chancel steps of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in 2004.

As we were working through the commandments, we got to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This is the fifth commandment and the first of the second table of the Law. It stands at the head of those laws that fall broadly under what it means to “love thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18). “What do you think this means, Sara?” came the fairly standard start-off question.

“It means that I should do what you and mommy tell me to do.”


“So that I can have a good life.”

Nothing terribly radical in that exchange. But as we talked further, some deep observations began to take shape between Sara and me. Ones that I (to my chagrin) had never thought before.

We had spent the first part of the previous lesson talking about the notions of covenant and mutual obligation (You will be my people and I will be your God). We talked about God’s act (deliverance from slavery) and promise (I will bring you into the land). And we talked about the people’s response (obedience in the land). All that came flooding back when we began to reflect on what it means to honor one’s parents.

As we talked, Sara and I came to the conclusion, first, that the fifth commandment was a mini-covenant. That is, it implied responsibilities on both sides. Children were to honor their parents, yes, and to do so in an asymmetrically related way to that in which the people were to honor God. If that’s the case, though, then there must also be some sort of obligation attached. It is this: parents are obligated to teach their children the covenant, to live it out in front of them, to talk about it when they lay down and rise up, when they are at home or on the road (Deut. 6). If children are to honor parents, then, of course, parents are to behave honorably. And teaching the covenant is what honorable behavior looks like.

The next conclusion then emerged easily: “that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” is not the individual promise of a long life, but rather has to do with the continuity of the covenant for the community in the land. God’s promise of the good, land-ed life is contingent upon the passing of the covenant from parent to child through successive generations. If parents fail to teach; if children fail to honor, then the covenant will collapse.

“Daddy,” came the most honest question yet, “is this why there are no kids in our church?” While her assessment of “no kids” was false, Sara had made a deep connection: our third conclusion. We have had two generations of failed catechesis in homes. Homes in which the faith was neither practiced nor taught, but farmed out to the ministry professionals to attend to. The covenant was broken. Parents have failed to teach their children; children have failed to honor their parents. I can’t help but wonder, after all the sociological assessments of millennials and their (lack of) religious affiliation are completed, a lot might be explained by a thesis as simple as this one. At some point, parents had nothing to pass on, and that’s exactly what their kids learned.

And finally the fourth: our youth oriented culture (no, not the bugaboo secular culture, but the youth-oriented church culture) has it exactly backwards. Making our primary goal attracting young families or youth or children may well end up being a recipe for a slow decline and death. Sara and I decided that we should belong to a churchy church, one that taught what it had received, one that worshiped in continuity with generations of previous believers, in the hope that the promise would not fail and that our days in the land would be long.

It might not be time to write ICHABOD over the doors just yet.

It’s Not Persecution

When Preston Manning used to introduce new Reform Party MPs to the House of Commons, among the bits of wisdom he shared with them was one that went like this. “When you give your first speech, you are going to want to blister the paint on the ceiling with your words. If you do, you’ll set the cause back fifty years.” His point was simple. Inflammatory rhetoric may indeed send an endorphin rush to one’s brain causing momentary euphoria. It will not, however, produce consideration among honorable members on the other side. It may well, in fact, alienate sympathizers.

Manning’s advice has been on my mind as I consider Trinity Western’s proposed law school and the new sex education curriculum in Ontario. I don’t want to rehash the controversies here—they have been well reported in the mainstream and Christian media. I do want to reflect on how some of us in the evangelical community have chosen to talk about them.

But first, a little context. Being an Anglican priest means, among other things, I belong to a worldwide communion of churches. Because of that, I have been able to forge friendships with people not only in the UK, Australia, and the United States, but also Egypt, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, India, Pakistan and Mauritius. Through them, I have heard close-to-first-hand accounts of anti-Christian persecution. The accounts are brutal, violent, and, sadly, true. Persecution is common in many parts of the world and seriously underreported in the mainstream media.

Frankly, I am shocked at the rhetoric being loosely bandied about regarding religious freedom in Canada. Christians in Canada are not being persecuted. Our faith is not under attack. “The government” is not trying to take away religious freedom. Though this kind of rhetoric provides some sort of emotional release it is both false and finally unhelpful.

Its falsehood is clear when Canadian accounts of “persecution” are set aside stories of the real thing. Our churches are not being burned, our clergy are not being kidnapped, our laypeople are not being raped or beheaded, and communities are not being expunged. That is persecution. Some Canadian Christians are experiencing what is better termed soft discrimination. It may well be that over the next few years, such soft discrimination will become harder. Then again, given increasing immigration patterns and the accompanying growth of evangelical and Roman Catholic communities (and those of other religions) in Canada,[1] such discrimination may turn out to be short-lived. If for no other reason than religious people vote, too. Either way, though, we are not persecuted. We minimize the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world when we say otherwise.

This rhetoric is also unhelpful. Because it draws a false identification between us and groups of people who are really being persecuted, it drives otherwise sympathetic people away. The TWU case raises all kinds of interesting questions regarding the shape of religious freedom in Canada, the purpose of the Charter of Rights, and the relation of so-called “public” and “private” commitments. These questions need to be thoughtfully debated, not reduced to sound bites. The new sex education curriculum in Ontario also needs careful consideration, and as both a parent and a Christian, I would say thoughtful opposition at specific points. To do so, however, takes time, care, and deliberately chosen, accurate words. Too many people have “blistered the paint,” making the work of others more difficult than it needed to be.

Jesus called his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Much of our language on these and other issues, however, reflects neither wisdom nor innocence.In our context, the language of persecution is untrue, unhelpful and, frankly, does not reflect the love of neighbour and enemy to which disciples are called.

[1] See “Religion isn’t dying. It may well be rising from the grave.” By Aaron Hutchins in the March 26 edition of Maclean’s available here:

C.S. Lewis Logos Library: Why Logos is Different from Kindle

Hey folks:

A couple of you have asked why they should invest in the Logos C. S. Lewis Library instead of buying Kindle editions. Here’s my attempt at an answer.

The first thing to be said is that Kindle and Logos aren’t really competitors. They serve different needs and even different audiences. It comes down to you and your needs as a reader. So if your intention is simply to build an electronic library or to replace your paper copies as they wear out, Kindle (or another e-reader) might be a good way for you to go. It is fast. It is reliable. It is portable. And most of all, it is cheaper. One of the hurdles that I faced when I first started investigating Logos was cost. And you may balk at it, too. I have come to believe that its benefits far outweigh the price. I think you will, too.

If your intention, however, is not simply to read Lewis for enjoyment, but to actually research themes as they develop through his literary corpus, then Kindle (or another e-reader) is of no use use to you. In fact, it’s even less use than having multiple paper copies of books at hand. For research purposes (this is my opinion), Kindle (or another e-reader) isn’t a helpful tool. You have to close one book before you can open another one (you can’t have multiple windows open). Nor can you search words or themes across texts. (For instance, you can’t move from The Four Loves to The Allegory of Love to compare what Lewis writes about  “eros” in each).

Here is where the Logos library really shines. Yes, you will pay more than buying the individual titles for an e-reader. But for the extra money, you will be able to open multiple books; the texts are fully indexed and you will search easily through the whole corpus. In my next Lewis blog, I’ll take you through such a study. I have to confess that the Logos software takes some time to learn, but the investment of both time and money pays off!

I need to be clear, finally, that you don’t need to be a Lewis scholar or a professional academic to make good use of the Logos platform. Because I teach a fair bit of Lewis in a university setting, it’s a superb tool. But I can see it being used by Sunday School teachers, lay leaders, or just interested readers.